First off, let’s get one thing straight: All Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne.
In order to be called Champagne, two criteria must be met. First, the wine must be produced in a specific, legally defined region of northern France. Second, the secondary fermentation that gives the wine its bubbles must take place in the bottle from which the sparkler is eventually sold and drunk.
So let’s start with how Champagne is made, a process often referred to as methode Champenoise or methode traditionelle.
The process is initially very similar to still wine. Grapes are harvested then pressed in a pressoir coquart. Its unique feature is a shallow base that allows only a thin layer of grapes to be pressed. As a result, the juice does not come into significant contact with the skins and no color is imparted.
The press holds 4,000 kilograms of grapes, from which 2,550 liters of juice can be obtained. The first 2,050 liters are called the cuvee, considered the best juice. The remaining 500 liters is the taille, or inferior juice.
The juice is passed to a tank where the first fermentation takes place. The result is an acidic wine that has been fermented completely dry. (In other words, the winemaker allows all the natural sugar present in the grapes to be fermented out of the wine.)
Some winemakers choose to ferment in barrel, a technique that is more difficult to master with sparkling wine.
This is one of the most critical steps in making Champagne. Unlike many wine regions where blending is frowned upon, this technique has been raised to a true art form in Champagne.
The classic Champagne style is nonvintage, which blends different grapes from various vineyards and several harvests. This is a highly skilled task, combining as many as 70 different base wines (which change in character each year) into a consistent “house style” cuvee.
While the blender can (and does) draw from the most current vintage, many houses also rely on stocks of reserve wines from previous years. These aged wines have the effect of making Champagne easier to drink at a younger age. They also add richness, fullness and complexity to the final blend.
Of all the steps, this is the most essential to making Champagne. Once the wine is blended, it is combined with the liqueur de triage, a mixture of wine, sugar and yeast that precipitates the second fermentation. It is then put into bottle and topped with a crown cap (what you see on beer bottles.) The bottles are then aged sur latte – stacked on their sides between thin layers of wood.
The cooler the fermentation temperature the better, as it slows fermentation, creating smaller bubbles and a more consistent bead. This fermentation can take two weeks to three months.
Once the secondary fermentation is complete, the bottles undergo remuage or riddling, a process of collecting the sediment created during the fermentation at the tip of the bottle. This is either done en pupitre or on a gyropallette.
A pupitre is a pair of heavy, hinged rectangular blocks, each containing 60 holes cut at an angle. This allows the bottle to be held by the neck in any position between horizontal and vertical with the neck pointing downward. The bottles start in a horizontal position and the pupitre is gradually moved by hand over roughly three weeks until the bottles are fully upside down.
A gyropallette is a computerized pallet that holds over 500 bottles and completes the process in about eight days.
The wine is then aged sur point – fully inverted – before the sediment is removed. The minimum time for non-vintage Champagne is 15 months, though most receive 18 to 30 months. Vintage Champagne must age for a minimum of three years, though again, many are held for much longer.
It is important to note that the wine during this time does not “age” as most consumers think of the term. The crown cap does not allow the necessary oxygen into the wine to allow the kind of ageing where the wine improves.
Once the wine is ready for release, disgorgement, or the removal of sediment from the bottle, takes place. The cap end of the bottle is submerged in a freezing brine solution. This solidifies the sediments in the neck so that, when the bottle is turned upright, they are ejected from the bottle (along with some wine) due to internal pressure.
Finally, the bottle is topped off to its previous fill level with liqueur d’expedition. In all cases except for extra brut, this liqueur includes a small amount of sugar, known as the dosage. The younger the wine, the greater the dosage needed to balance its acidity.
It’s a fine line, as acidity is essential to keep the wine fresh during its lengthy bottle-ageing as well as any cellaring by the consumer. It also is important to carry the flavor to the palate. Acidity rounds out with age, thus the older the wine, the less dosage needed as a counteragent.
There are several styles of Champagne, named based on the amount of sugar in the bottle:
Style → Sugar
Extra Brut → less than 6 grams/liter
Brut Extra Sec → 12 – 20 g/l
Sec → 17 – 35 g/l
Demi-Sec → 35 – 50 g/l
Doux → more than 50 g/l
The Finishing Touch
The wine is now ready for cork and consumption. One of the remarkable things about Champagne is, it is ready for drinking upon release. While many Champagne wines (particularly vintage) are able to age, a vast majority (particularly non-vintage) should be enjoyed within a year or so of purchase.